There was a stretch in the middle of my five season Adventure Time marathon where, despite how much I love this kid’s cartoon for being progressive, subversive, and a home for different voices in the world, it was starting to feel very boy. I mean that in the nicest way, and it’s not like I didn’t expect it, going into a show about a 13-year-old boy and his magical dog best friend. But the gross-out humour and wrestling and sword fights were starting to wear, and I was growing impatient for the next Princess Bubblegum or Marceline episode.
It was the third or fourth time they took a shot at the seduction community (yes, the seduction community) that I realised what I wasn’t seeing. A show where the most powerful leader is a pink bubblegum princess who loves science and where the most annoying villain is a sad, old man chasing after young girls, Adventure Time is teaching boys how to be men. Good men, not Nice Guys.
Finn has a crush on PB, but whenever he starts to get weird (he’s 13; she’s 18), Jake gives him a smack. Jake is a dog, but he’s also Finn’s big brother. When Finn finds a copy of Mind Games by Jay T. Doggzone (a thinly-veiled parody of every PUA manual ever), Jake has to explain that he only keeps it around for laughs. He doesn’t believe in that stuff, and neither should Finn. Jake sets the example for a healthy relationship, with his girlfriend, Lady Rainicorn, the entire span of the series. (They have kids together, too, even if rainicorns age faster than expected.)
Once Bubblegum lets Finn down, he sulks for a few episodes. Then he meets the Flame Princess. She’s 13, too, and though they don’t have a lot in common, and she doesn’t always laugh at his jokes, Finn likes her. They go on picnics (with Jake and Lady as chaperones). Finn takes her to a dungeon. Flame Princess teaches him how to blow stuff up. They’re getting to know each other.
For Finn, the most important thing is to be a hero. He spends his days fighting the Ice King, saving the Candy Kingdom, and inventing new ways to make people laugh. It’s his job. In the Land of Ooo, a 13-year-old boy can do this as a job.
In our world, 13-year-old boys are in their first year of high school. They’re noticing how girls are different. They’re figuring out what they can do as a job. They’re pulling away from their parents and looking up to the big kids in grade 12. There is still a lot of gross-out humour and wrestling and sword fights, but we change in a lot of ways during those four years of high school, and one of those ways is deciding what to pick up and what to leave behind.
I hope the boys growing up and watching Adventure Time right now don’t leave Finn and Jake behind. They’re teaching important lessons about what to do, who to be, and how to treat the world, not only the people you care about, but everyone. I hope the men getting high and watching Adventure Time right now are paying attention, too. There are lessons for them that they maybe didn’t get the first time around.
Be a hero. Save the day. But if a girl doesn’t laugh at your jokes, that’s no reason to run away and hide in the pillow fort. Be a man. And if you can’t be a man, be a boy like Finn. You’ll get there eventually.